U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Reporter arrested, phone confiscated while covering NC homeless camp eviction

Incident Details

Date of Incident
December 25, 2021

Arrest/Criminal Charge

Arresting Authority
Asheville Police Department
Charges
  • Trespassing
    • Dec. 26, 2021: Charges pending
    • Apr. 19, 2023: Convicted
    • Apr. 19, 2023: Pending appeal
    • Jun. 16, 2023: Convicted
Release Date
Unnecessary use of force?
No
Equipment Seized
Status of Seized Equipment
Returned in full
Search Warrant Obtained
Yes

Subpoena/Legal Order

Legal Orders
Legal Order Target
Journalist
Legal Order Venue
State
Courtesy of Veronica Coit/Asheville Blade

While documenting police engaging in a sweep of a homeless encampment in Asheville, North Carolina, on Dec. 25, 2021, two Asheville Blade journalists were arrested and charged with trespassing.

— Courtesy of Veronica Coit/Asheville Blade
June 16, 2023 - Update

Asheville reporter convicted of trespassing following jury trial

Asheville Blade reporter Matilda Bliss was found guilty of trespassing by a jury, along with fellow reporter Veronica Coit, during a five-day trial that ended on June 16, 2023.

The journalists were arrested while documenting a homeless encampment sweep by police in Asheville, North Carolina, on Dec. 25, 2021, and were charged with second-degree trespassing.

After multiple trial delays, a judge found Bliss and Coit guilty on April 12, 2023. Both were ordered to pay a $25 fine and court costs, while Coit was additionally sentenced to a 10-day suspended prison sentence and one year of probation.

Their attorney filed an appeal asking that the case be heard by a jury and the sentences were held pending the outcome of the retrial, which began on June 12.

On June 16, the jury found both Bliss and Coit guilty, according to Bliss. She told Freedom of the Press Foundation, which manages the day-to-day operations of the Tracker, they were each sentenced to a fine of $100 plus court costs. The Asheville Citizen Times reported that their defense attorney entered a notice of appeal for both cases immediately after the verdict.

According to an earlier account in the Citizen Times, the judge reportedly instructed the jury not to consider the constitutionality of the charges against Coit and Bliss and had not decided their motion to dismiss under the First Amendment. Before the jury convened, the judge indicated orally that he was going to deny the motion and issue a written ruling to that effect later.

FPF has led a coalition of media organizations and press freedom groups demanding the charges be dropped. In a statement, FPF Advocacy Director Seth Stern said the verdict was disturbing and called it a loss for the people of Asheville.

“They gain absolutely nothing from their government weaponizing trespassing laws to punish journalists for doing their jobs,” Stern said.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with additional details following the verdict.

May 3, 2023 - Update

Asheville reporter learns of cellphone search warrant, park ban in lead up to jury trial

Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit, who were found guilty of trespassing during an April bench trial, are now scheduled to appear for a jury trial on June 12, 2023, after the case was rescheduled to allow time for discovery.

Blade Editor David Forbes told the Freedom of the Press Foundation in early May that the journalists, unbeknownst to them, had been placed on a “City Park Ban List” following their December 2021 arrests. They were barred from entering city parks in Asheville, North Carolina, for one year, with “Camping in Aston Park refused to leave” listed as the justification. Bliss told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker that by the time they learned of the ban it had already lapsed.

According to the ban list, reviewed by the Tracker, more than a dozen others arrested during the Dec. 25 encampment sweep were barred from Asheville parks for three years. The ACLU of North Carolina filed a lawsuit on behalf of some of those individuals on April 18.

The Blade reported on Twitter that after the bench trial, the reporters’ attorney obtained police records confirming that detectives had secured a search warrant in January 2022 for Bliss’ cellphone, which was seized during her arrest. According to records reviewed by the Tracker, the warrant was obtained as part of an investigation into one of the protesters also arrested during the encampment sweep, not Bliss.

April 19, 2023 - Update

Reporters convicted on trespassing charges, immediately appealed for jury trial

Asheville Blade reporters Matilda Bliss and Veronica Coit were convicted on second degree trespassing charges on April 19, 2023, stemming from their arrests while documenting a homeless encampment sweep in Asheville, North Carolina, nearly 16 months prior.

According to Shadowproof, both journalists were ordered to pay a $25 fine and court costs, while Coit was additionally sentenced to a 10-day suspended prison sentence and one year of probation.

The Blade reported the decision on Twitter, writing that the judge ignored the press freedom arguments made in the journalists’ defense and “openly” sided with the Asheville Police Department’s assertion that the press had no right to remain in the park after curfew.

“Every reporter, everyone who's ever criticized any official or cop should find the push to punish our journalists chilling,” the Blade wrote.

The attorney representing Coit and Bliss immediately filed an appeal for the case to be heard before a jury trial, the Blade reported. Blade Editor David Forbes told the Freedom of the Press Foundation that the trial is currently scheduled for May 1 and that the sentences are on hold pending the results of that appeal.

After nearly a year of continuances, the pair was originally set to stand before a judge for a bench trial in September 2022 — that hearing was delayed until January 2023 before being postponed yet again.

NC Newsline investigative reporter Kelan Lyons, who was live-tweeting the trial from Asheville, wrote that Buncombe County Chief District Judge Calvin Hill said that there was no evidence presented to the court that the pair are journalists. Hill offered the reporters the option of asking for judgment to be withheld, which would prevent them from having a criminal record, but they declined.

Bliss told Lyons that the case has consequences for journalism across the country. “We’re going to fight this to the end,” Bliss said.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated with details of the journalists’ pending sentences.

March 11, 2022 - Update

Police return phone, belongings to reporter after obtaining search warrant

Police returned the phone and backpack of Asheville Blade reporter Matilda Bliss on March 11, 2022, nearly three months after she and a colleague were arrested while covering a police eviction of a homeless encampment in Asheville, North Carolina.

Bliss and fellow reporter Veronica Coit were arrested on Dec. 25, 2021, and charged with second degree trespassing, which carries a penalty of up to 20 days in jail and a $200 fine. The pair had a preliminary hearing on March 8, 2022, with a follow-up hearing scheduled for April 12.

Bliss told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker in a message on Twitter that she was able to retrieve her phone and other belongings on March 11 and that “all seems to be in place.”

“I’m just waiting for professional guidance before starting the phone just in case it was tampered with,” Bliss wrote. She added that her attorney believes police obtained a search warrant and searched her phone, and that they will be able to view the warrant and officers’ body camera footage at some point.

Asheville Police Department Chief David Zack did not respond to requests for further information.

December 25, 2021

Asheville Blade reporter Matilda Bliss was arrested alongside a colleague while covering a police eviction of a homeless encampment in Asheville, North Carolina, on Dec. 25, 2021.

Bliss, whose pronouns are she/they, told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker she had been at Aston Park multiple times throughout the day but had left to run an errand at approximately 9 p.m. Both Bliss and Blade reporter Veronica Coit returned to the park a little before 10 p.m. after receiving texts about a growing police force gathering at the park. A small encampment in the park was the latest focus of ongoing city efforts to clear Asheville’s homeless populations out of public areas, according to the Asheville Citizen Times.

As officers directed everyone in the camp to “move on” under threat of arrest, Coit and Bliss documented their actions from a distance, Bliss told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker. The Blade reported that one of the officers then pointed toward Coit and said, “[They’re] taking pictures.”

Five officers then advanced toward Coit and placed them under arrest. Several officers then told Bliss to immediately leave the park or face arrest. Bliss repeatedly identified as a member of the press before she, too, was arrested.

The Blade reported that Bliss was wearing a press badge issued by the outlet at the time of her arrest.

“According to the last things [Bliss and Coit] observed, and from sources they later spoke with, APD then grew even more violent, dragging campers out of tents and arresting them,” the Blade reported. “Our journalists were clearly targeted first to remove those who could quickly bring the brutality that followed to the public’s attention.”

Coit and Bliss were each charged with second degree trespassing, which carries a penalty of up to 20 days in jail and a $200 fine.

Blade founder and editor David Forbes told the Tracker that while Coit was released shortly after midnight, Bliss was left handcuffed in a police car for more than two hours and was the last person released from custody. Forbes said that to the best of the journalists’ knowledge, Bliss was the only arrestee whose phone was confiscated.

Bliss told the Tracker that when she was released at approximately 1:50 a.m. on the 26th, officers did not return her belongings, stating that they are being held as evidence and that it’s up to the district attorney to approve their release. The Asheville Police Department did not return a call requesting comment.

The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the arrests in a statement on Twitter a few days after the incident:

“Authorities in #Asheville, NC should drop all charges against @AvlBlade reporters Veronica Coit and @matilda_bliss, who were arrested on December 25. We are deeply concerned that @AshevillePolice interfered with their reporting, and unnecessarily confiscated Bliss's phone.”

Forbes told the Tracker that the charges against Bliss and Coit are still pending and they both have hearings scheduled for March 8, 2022.

“It was a hard experience but also I’m not going to back down either,” Bliss told the Tracker. “That’s the only way that this doesn’t happen to other people.”

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].